Capital Region

Colleges set to celebrate graduates

Union College's 2015 commencement ceremony.

Union College's 2015 commencement ceremony.

Colleges and universities across the Capital Region are set to celebrate graduates over the coming weeks, employing a variety of approaches – some of which will only include the graduates.

The ceremonies differ from school to school but reflect the restrictions schools have been forced to work under – even as venues are given more and more room to host visitors.

While Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced outdoor venues would be able to open at full capacity by May 19, colleges and K-12 public schools have made graduation plans under state guidelines issued in April specific to academic ceremonies, which are more restrictive than the newer venue guidelines announced this week.

Kristy Ventre, a spokesperson at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, which hosts graduations for colleges and high schools during the spring, on Thursday said SPAC was “getting clarity on the new guidelines and what it means for SPAC events.”

Union College, RPI and Skidmore College are all planning to host commencement ceremonies effectively closed to all but the graduates and faculty members. Union plans to host its graduates outside of Schaffer Library, the school’s traditional commencement location, while hosting two guests per graduate at a separate on-campus location where the ceremony will be shown by video. RPI is also planning to host an on-campus ceremony limited to graduates. Skidmore is scheduled to have its students-only ceremony at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center May 22, citing logistical challenges and state restrictions as preventing parent attendance.

But some parents are questioning why schools weren’t able to do more to plan events that would allow parents to also attend, arguing parents who can demonstrate vaccination or a negative test should be allowed in.

“I don’t understand why they would not allow vaccinated parents,” said Shawnee Knight, the parent of a Skidmore senior. “We’re not asking for the whole family.”

Knight said she has pressed the college to find solutions that would allow parents to attend the commencement later this month, adding that she suggested painting circles at a distance in the SPAC lawn, hiring staff to check for vaccines and take temperatures at the gate. Knight, who lives in Connecticut, even made a reconnaissance mission to Saratoga Springs recently to see if it would be possible to watch the ceremony from outside the gates at SPAC. She learned that would not be possible.

“They are not being creative thinkers right now,” she said of Skidmore officials, invoking the college’s motto, “Creative Thought Matters.”

“One of the first opportunities I could get vaccinated, I did, thinking this will allow me to sit outside and watch him play baseball and sit outside and watch him graduate,” Knight said of her son.

And while Union, for example, scheduled small, post-commencement events by department and program that parents can attend, Knight said Skidmore was not offering something similar.

“Parents and families may opt to travel to Saratoga Springs to pick up their students if they wish, but they will not be permitted to attend the ceremony,” according to commencement information posted on Skidmore’s website.

Skidmore spokesperson Angela Valden on Thursday said the college was “continuing to work on plans for commencement” but did not have any updates to provide and did not respond directly to a question about whether the college was exploring ways to allow parents to attend the ceremony.

The Skidmore website indicates the college prioritized holding an event that all graduating students could attend, limiting the ability to also allow guests. (Other schools have divided commencement into multiple ceremonies.)

“We have considered many options for commencement at Skidmore this year,” the college explained on its website. “The senior class was very clear that their priority was to have the whole class together, in person, for a single ceremony, if at all possible.”

College officials continued that “given current and ever-changing conditions, we have been unable to conceive of a way to bring over 1,500 external guests to the ceremony.” RPI officials cited a similar reason for only allowing students at its ceremony.

“Due to New York State guidelines, the in-person ceremony will be for students only,” RPI wrote in its description of the ceremony.

Albany Law School, which will be hosting its graduation ceremony at SPAC the day prior to Skidmore, is allowing each student three ticketed guests. The school will have far fewer graduates than Skidmore and most other schools in the region. The graduates and guests will be required to show proof of a vaccine or negative test prior to the ceremony and wear a mask.

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